Leni Riefenstahl interviewed by Kevin Brownlow

"If Leni Riefenstahl had done nothing but visit Africa and bring back her photographs, her place in history would be secure."

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In Khartoum, Ahmed Abu Bakr brought Leni to meet President Nimeiri. In recognition of her services to the Sudan, she was presented with Sudanese citizenship. Leni became the first foreigner to receive a Sudanese passport. It was, however, taboo to bring up the question of clothes.

Her return in 1974 was an even greater disappointment. The warriors now wore shorts or Arab costumes. The Kau village was all but deserted. At her camp, she and Horst had to cope with the explosion of a gas-canister-Leni's clothes caught fire-and an hour later she cracked her skull on a branch. Horst was just tending her injury when two large vehicles arrived packed with tourists. Nothing could be more guaranteed to dismay them. The tourists were a pleasant enough group of Germans who had heard that Leni was there from an indiscreet official. But since they saw no sign of painted Nuba, they departed the following day.

Later, the Nuba produced banknotes, given to them by the tourists, and they began to expect payment for photos. Once unspoiled tribesmen had been plied with cash, said Leni, a photographer may as well pack up and leave. (People of Kau, p. 16)

"Did you not pay them for photographs?"

"If I had done that (in the beginning) I could never have worked there. All the Nuba, hundreds would have wanted money. It was a huge problem already with the glass beads we'd taken along. We had to stop that because they went mad, they all wanted beads. That was the trouble, you couldn't give them anything because then all would have wanted it. The most we did was that I, and later Horst as well, would spend two or three hours every evening treating people who were sick. At night, when it got too dark for our work, they'd come queuing up, with open wounds on their legs-open wounds, mainly-and pneumonia. We had a proper medicine chest, prepared for us by a doctor here."

Leni and Horst also set up a slide projector and showed the pictures she had taken the previous year. This caused enormous excitement. "Their reaction to the pictures was indescribable... the Nuba seemed to recognise everyone, even on the basis of a mere silhouette." (p. 614)

"The first slide I showed-a young mother from Kau wih her baby in her arms-was greeted with a bellow of laughter which redoubled when I followed it with close-ups of the baby. The Nuba found it past comprehension that a human head could be as large as it appeared on the screen." (People of Kau, p. 213)

This presentation made the Nuba far less inhibited and in the following days they arrived at the camp to show themselves to Leni, the young men elaborately painted.

Back in Munich, Leni, who was, after all, seventy-two years old-an age at which many are vegetating in old peoples' homes-underwent a physical collapse. However, she all but forgot her illness when she saw the high standard of the still pictures and Horst's motion picture film. Stern and the Sunday Times published the Kau pictures and they were seen around the world. The Art Director's Club of Germany awarded Leni a gold medal for the best photographic achievement of 1975. There were antipathetic articles, as there had always been, but the general reaction to her pictures-from every country that saw them-was amazingly enthusiastic. She was asked by a magazine to return, and in Khartoum received an award from President Nimeiri, who praised her two pictures books, the form and content of which allowed even Muslims to see the unclad Nuba without being offended. The Sudanese government gave several hundred copies of her books to foreign embassies at Christmas.

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Leni Riefenstahl. Africa

Leni Riefenstahl. Africa

Angelika Taschen
Hardcover in box, 13.6 x 19.7 in., 564 pages, $ 4,500